Let's start this conversation about Richard Sherman by saying I mostly really liked the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe this will eventually make some kind of sense.
It ultimately struck me as unpleasant that the movie went so far as to articulate – to specifically announce to its audience – that neither they nor it cared all that much about the details of the illegal, calamitous, and wildly irresponsible trading and financial activities of its main characters, but instead gleefully showed us in exhilarating detail as much of their debauchery and social depravity as could be fit into a three hour movie. That the movie showed so much drug use and sex and over-the-top unhinged revelry isn't really any problem for me at all, except that the makers of the movie have very clearly stated that I was intended to disapprove of these people and their amoral behavior. But here's the thing – I think many of us are no longer scandalized by heavy drug use and philandering, orgies and multipliers and drunk driving. It turns out, I am only bothered by those things to the extent that they introduce danger into the lives of people not engaged in the behavior themselves, which is to say, if you want to snort handfuls of cocaine and have tons of raunchy sex with just about anyone, fuckin' A, man, go for it. Just don't, like, run over your neighbor. The Wolf of Wall Street, ultimately, seems to think these behaviors are more morally reprehensible than the kinds of fast and loose illegal trading activities that virtually destabilized the world's economy. The Wolf of Wall Street has a strangely prudish, old-fashioned criticism at its core: we and our viewers think these people are bad because they do drugs and sleep with hookers.
Still, where the movie resonated with me was in a depiction of a room full of ambitious white-collar white people dressed in bland functional business attire, bespectacled in shirt-sleeves rolled to their elbows, raising defiant middle fingers and wildly hurling obscenities at the mention of rules and oversight that, to them, represented an outdated puritanical tyranny that was the enemy of their modern freedom. In their world of business, ambition is its own justification, and any behavior sprung from ambition is by its nature virtuous, and it is for the weak and pathetic and self-destructive to both be the collateral damage of their reckless, unchecked ambition and to dare stand against it. It was sort of a terrifying sequence, and I loved it, because I recognize it.
Inside that part of our culture that is celebrated from within, we seem to have isolated a business morality that is separate and different in important ways from our social morality. In interpersonal relationships, practicing any amount of dishonesty is understood as bad, negative, destructive, toxic. In interpersonal relationships, intimidation is vile, domination is sociopathic, disloyalty is shameful. In interpersonal relationships, self-aggrandizement is obnoxious. Double-dealing is unforgivable. Leverage is a device used by manipulators and antisocial dirtbags. The kinds of people who do these things or are this way among other people in the real world are, well, assholes.
Perhaps this scene from The Wolf of Wall Street resonated with me because those people didn't look like Skeletor, they looked like the kinds of people who have husbands and wives and siblings and kids and neighbors and friends, who are generous and caring and funny and polite and vulnerable inside their homes and the homes of their friends, who smile warmly and hold the door open for strangers, share cabs and buy the next round. Good, normal people who will have nice things said about them with sincerity when they die. But they exist in a business world where generosity, restraint, vulnerability, fair-mindedness, and respect of rules are fatal weaknesses, and they achieve success to the degree that they are able to transform themselves from good-natured humans to frothing kill-or-be-killed ass-kickers the moment they walk in the door. Placed against their wild drug abuse and at-times absurd sexual exploits, I found this core ability to lay all social morality at the foot of the altar of ambition to be the darkest, most frightening strike against them. But, then, I'm an abject failure as a businessperson. Ah well.
I can't hope to trace the origin and genesis of the common idea that we must bring a toughness and ruthlessness to the pursuit of our self-interests that would be wildly inappropriate in our interpersonal dealings, but I have to allow that, well, it's probably rooted in reality. A person will have more success in business if they exert their will over the opposition, if they intimidate in negotiation to get as much as possible, if they exploit inefficiencies and disregard the ripple effects of their ambition. It's all true, I suppose, because we have exalted competition as a means to not only success, but fairness. That which is achieved through competition is meritorious by definition and fundamentally pure, cleansed of fault and consequence by the rigors of the process by which it is earned. Because competition is, in our society, both the vehicle and measurement of economic justice, those who are prepared to compete most vigorously are entitled to the most success. In that context, considering the interests of your competition is, in canon and in fact, a vulnerability, a weakness, even idealism. This is the world as we have created it: in the pursuit of success, the best and strongest will use every means available to them to win, and their victory vindicates the nature of their pursuit. They competed more strenuously and more efficiently. Their method of competition was the best.
Football is a strange place to turn those observations into a criticism. Football, after all, is competition in such stark terms that it involves actual physical struggle, actual violence. And Richard Sherman didn't break or bend any rules in his pursuit of victory, or, anyway, no one is complaining about him cheating in any way. The uproar is all about his behavior after the game. By all accounts, he won fairly and spectacularly and then accidentally brought his renowned competitive intensity outside of his ambitious pursuit of success. This has led to hand-wringing of virtually every degree.
A certain part of our society is always laying in wait for a black person to step out of line in any way, and those people will likely never change. Richard Sherman was not going to earn his way into their hearts by being generous and humble in his post-game comments. They would eye him with the same anticipatory skepticism no matter what – they're hoping he says something big or brash or arrogant or insulting, anything to give them a flimsy platform of justification for their racist spew.
I don't know that the exact opposite of that group is all that significant, but somewhere down towards the opposite end, short of whatever percentage of people love Richard Sherman or the Seahawks to such a degree that literally anything he said in that moment would have confirmed his awesomeness, there's another group of people that saw Sherman's outburst as the trickle-over of his robust competitive spirit and thought something along the lines of I love how fiery and competitive that guy is, or, more probably, fuck yeah. They know that Richard Sherman spent the entire game inside that fierce competitive mode – striving physically to a downright dangerous extent, every nerve and sense focused. According to his reputation, Richard Sherman likely spent much of the contest also shouting at his opponents, distracting them, unnerving them, demoralizing them whenever possible, to the benefit and delight of his coaches and teammates and many fans. Gaining that and whatever edge was available to him. Football is exactly the practice of dominance, the exercising of a will over another will, and within that structure of dominance, Richard Sherman was practicing another dominance, his personal dominance over his personal opponent. His method of competition was ultimately superior, as it usually is. That's his job, and that's why he's the best at his job. He is right to know that he is the best in the world at his job.
There's a group nearer the middle that seem fussy and prude for celebrating a guy's competitive tenacity and then condemning him for still being in that mode only moments after achieving victory, but actually, in a world where a relative of mine insists it is a tremendous shortcoming that I am unwilling to use threats as leverage and practice dominance in business negotiations, it makes an awful lot of sense. The problem these people have isn't that Richard Sherman says Michael Crabtree is sorry, nor is it that he seeks to intimidate or demoralize his opponent. Their problem is that he did those things outside of the contest for victory. He brought his business morality into the world of social morality. What is okay in the competitive pursuit of success is not okay outside of that pursuit.
It's interesting how this works in reverse, too, even in real-time. We are all familiar with the idea of an athlete having the killer instinct. Larry Bird was a killer, eager to step on the throat of a staggered foe, happy to demoralize an opponent by predicting their futility, willing to fuel his competitive drive by understanding a certain player being assigned to guard him as a genuine personal insult. He had the killer instinct, that drive that elevates physical gifts and athletic prowess into an undeniable aptitude for competitive success. Somewhere at the other end is someone like, say, Donovan McNabb. McNabb, of course, had every possible physical and psychological gift – big, fast, strong, dexterous, smart, charismatic, and confident, but saddled with a perceived lack of the killer instinct to such a degree that Arlen Specter and Bernard Hopkins publicly called him out on it. Lacking the single-minded will to dominate the contest, no amount of post-game graciousness could ever salvage his reputation among fans as a softy, a loser. We have no appetite for athletes bringing their business morality outside of the competition, and we have a distaste for athletes not checking their gregariousness at the door of business that is at least as strong. Dwight Howard has been hit with this curse. LeBron James was a loser before he developed the will to dominate. Nice guy Kevin Durant is a new man now that he mean mugs and taunts, lashes out and earns technical fouls. He has learned the business morality.
So, I suppose the question becomes, are those people tut-tutting Sherman's post-game behavior wrong? Is it acceptable that Sherman's instinct for domination rear itself outside of the competition? Is it acceptable to humiliate and demoralize an opponent inside the pursuit of success but unacceptable outside of that pursuit? Of course, I suspect everyone's answer to be very personally motivated and tied to things like your stance on economic and social policy and your experiences in business and your experiences in sports.
I remember doing an awful lot of trash-talking when I was a teenager. I remember being red-faced with bulging neck-veins and experiencing something like rage-induced dissociation during beach volleyball games against genuinely stunned and distressed family members. I remember sobbing uncontrollably after losing my very first ever organized sports match, searching desperately for something outside of just simple luck and athletic prowess for an explanation. I remember coming to blows with a kid who yanked on my helmet one too many times in a scrimmage. I remember virtually forcing my brother to stand underneath a basket while I attempted to dunk on him over and over and over again, screaming at him, bullying him, a ruthless and absolute need to use him as a prop for my own desire to dominate. I remember lying my way through arguments with coworkers, inventing relevant experience, actively destabilizing competitors. I vividly remember suddenly being impressed by other men who readily admitted not knowing the answer, who conceded points, who congratulated opponents during competition, and feeling embarrassed by my transparent need to win. I remember sitting in a restaurant and losing my appetite because of a loudmouth in Cowboys gear woofing away at a room of civilized Giants fans, thinking there was something very definitely wrong about this runaway arrogance, this perfectly comfortable pursuit of superiority. I remember being told in an otherwise positive performance review that a desire for fairness and interest in accommodating the comfort of subordinates would be something to reverse and overcome, and knowing, finally knowing that being successful in some fields is about being something not just different but less than what I ultimately wanted to be.
I found Richard Sherman's behavior uncomfortable and ugly, and not simply because it came after the competition, but because it coming after the competition means that it also comes during the competition. Because it means athletic competition, and not just among crazed, clueless teenagers but even among serious professionals, is about more than luck and focus and prowess and teamwork and self-sacrifice. It's also about the will to dominate, about demoralizing a person, belittling them, humiliating them, pissing on their grave. It requires a morality that is separate from our social morality, it requires that its participants be less than what they can be. It's a place where being fun-loving and vulnerable makes Donovan McNabb and Dwight Howard weak, makes them losers. I have never really suspected otherwise, but I'm still hoping. Someone once told me there are places on earth where the local custom is to play the game not until one side wins, but until neither side wins, until after the fullness of the challenge has played itself out, the game is ended after a draw is achieved. It's possible whoever told me that made it up, but I like to think such a place wouldn't offend us, doesn't seem impossible. That in accepting the possibility of such a place we accept the possibility that we can measure our efforts against those of others without needing ever to be superior. And I like further to think that within that contest, there is no room, no expectation, no history, and no memory of any instance where the pursuit of personal success required a will to dominate.
We don't live in that world, of course. In our world, athletes are asked to be our moral champions on both sides. Interestingly, and rather like The Wolf of Wall Street, we are expected to care quite a lot about their sex-lives and drug use and cars and clothes and jewelry, and I think many of us have always found that to be oddly out-of-step and puritanical. Who is really bothered by this stuff? We ask them to superficially be the champions of a flimsy, outdated social morality and condemn them lustily when they fail. We also ask them to be the champions of our business morality, the symbolic embodiment of the struggle for success and victory, and we have over and over again reinforced the idea that aggression and dominance are the ingredients of victory. And so it is hypocritical to ask that Richard Sherman have what it takes to succeed at being superior while also telling him that those same traits are ugly and distasteful in polite society. But I have to admit to wishing we had just one right and wrong for both our interpersonal dealings and our pursuit of success. Otherwise, we will always have people who are unfit for one or the other, and that seems, well, unsportsmanlike.